Numbers 21 & 22: On the Way to Canaan


You can find a full audio program of this teaching here.

Chapter 21 opens with a battle. The King of Arad heard the Israelites were coming and he fought them and took some prisoners. In response the new generation reaches out to God and He grants them victory—the Lord listened to the voice of Israel and He delivered up this group of Canaanites.

The Canaanites were a group of ancient people who lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Canaan is described in the Bible as extending from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan River Valley in the east. In the Bible this area is called the “land of Canaan” and occupies the same area that is occupied by modern Lebanon and Israel, plus parts of Jordan and Syria.

Mentioned over 150 times in the Bible, the Canaanites were portrayed as a wicked, idolatrous people that descended from Noah’s grandson Canaan, who was a son of Ham (Genesis 9:18). Canaan was cursed because of his and his father’s sin against Noah (Genesis 9:20-25).

After their military victory the Israelites are annoyed by the difficult journey and speak against both God and Moses. They had a reason to be discouraged but they had no excuse for their discouragement. They faced a real challenge and something that is no fun at all. Yet, they had no excuse for not trusting in God, and for not looking for His victory through it all.

In response, the Lord sends fiery serpents among the people. These serpents (dubbed “fiery” in some commentator’s notes because they may have been red, or their bite may have caused an intense burning sensation) came from God to get the nation’s attention at this critical place in their journey to the Promised Land.

The people ask Moses to pray for them; they know their answer lies in the saving work of God. They are not trusting in luck or medicine, but only in God. In an unusual answer to prayer God commands Moses to make a serpent (and Moses makes it out of bronze), to set on a pole so that those who looked upon it would be saved. This was an unusual direction from God and miracle resulting. There is no immediate logical connection between merely looking at a serpent on a pole and living; or refusing to look and dying. But God commanded that such a “foolish” thing be used to bring salvation to Israel.

The people were saved not by doing anything, but by simply looking to the bronze serpent. They had to trust that something as seemingly foolish as looking at serpent on a pole was enough to save them. Surely, some perished because they thought it too foolish to do that. As it says in Isaiah 45:22: Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. We might be willing to do a hundred things to earn our salvation, but God commands us to only trust in Him—to look to Him.

The Israelites continue their journey and are challenged by the Amorites. Amorites were highlanders and their name is derived from another of Canaan’s sons (Genesis 14:7). The southern slopes of the mountains of Judea are called the “mount of the Amorirtes” in Deuteronomy 1:7).

The Bible relates a victory for Israel as well as the defeat of king Og in following verses. The people are experiencing small victories before they face the hardened Canaanite warriors.

Chapter 22 introduces us to one of the Bible’s most mysterious characters. Balaam was a Gentile seer who is hired by Balak, a Moabite king, to curse Israel and frustrate their march to the Promised Land. Some authors consider him a genuine prophet of God. Others say he was a religious racketeer. Is Balaam sincerely seeking to serve God, or is he a fake, a phony?

As the nation of Israel approaches, the people of Moab are sick with dread. They had undoubtedly heard of Israel’s victories, and the sheer size of the nation and potential of what that alone could do caused alarm.

Balak the king wanted some help and he sought out Balaam. He sends messengers to Balaam with a promise of reward. Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel, to cripple them spiritually so they could be defeated in battle. Balak seemed to know the strength of Israel was spiritually rooted, and they had to cut off from their source of power if they were to be conquered.

Balaam compromises. He receives clear direction from God, but he ignores it. He entertains Balak’s men under the guise of continuing to seek God’s input. It was as if Balaam is saying, “God doesn’t want me to do this, but I can be persuaded.” He’s exchanging the idea of material reward for what is clearly God’s will for him.

God does allow Balaam to go with Balak’s messengers. Pastor J. Vernon McGee wrote, “We have here what is known as the permissive will of God. He permits us many times to do something that we insist on doing when it is not in His direct will. You remember how we learned from the children of Israel that God granted their request but sent leanness to their souls. Sometimes He also grants our requests and sends leanness to our souls.”

On the trail to Balak, we have the most unusual encounter in Scripture. An Angel of the Lord blocks the road and Balaam’s donkey sees it, stops and is beaten by Balaam and told to keep going. The donkey was more spiritually perceptive than the prophet. The donkey had no spiritual gifts, but at least acknowledged his Creator. The prophet had wonderful spiritual gifts, but also a disobedient heart and walk. The donkey is a perfect picture of a simple, unspectacular, yet obedient follower of God—sensitive to God’s direction, a thorn to the disobedient, and a victim of the wrath of the disobedient.

Balaam does make it to Balak and we will cover his prophecies in our next session.


  • More than a miracle; we need spiritual maturity. We often keep looking for the next miracle instead of growing spiritually. Spiritual maturity keeps our attitude and outlook the same no matter the circumstances. A grouchy heart even complains about miracles. Instead of complaining; we need to bless everything we can bless with a thankful heart.

Psalm 100:4 reminds us; “Come into his city with songs of thanksgiving and into his courtyards with songs of praise. Thank him and praise his name. (NCV)”

  • Happiness is an inside job. Why would it be here—only weeks away from their entering the Promised Land—that God would have poisonous serpents bite His people? Because if they’re not taught in the wilderness, they will be distraught in the Land of Promise. God is willing to go to great extremes to help us to understand that if we’re not happy today, we’ll not be happy tomorrow regardless of what comes our way or where we might be.
  • Sometimes that “donkey” sees things you never would. We should never underestimate the nature and extent of Balaam’s blindness, however—it is a solemn and frightening reminder of what sin when deliberately indulged can do to our powers of perception, and how it can “put out our eyes” and render us insensitive to spiritual realities.
  • The main lesson here is to find the will of God and obey it, regardless of personal desires or subsequent circumstances.



2 Responses to “Numbers 21 & 22: On the Way to Canaan”

  1. Eva Quinones says:

    I was admiring the display of art and pictures of Balaam and the donkey and would like permission to print one or two of the black and white art to show the children in my Sunday Bible class. I teach ages 6-11,at Calvary Chapel Kaneohe in Honolulu, HI. If you need to, you can get in touch with me at (808) 349-8365.

    The lesson is on Numbers 22-24. I would love to show the children your art work this coming Sunday. Thank you.

    Eva Quinones

Leave a Reply to Eva Quinones

  • Search

Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.

Brennan Manning

©2014 Wayne Hastings. All Rights Reserved. Site by Birdsong Creative.